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Remember the Summer of '42? This is supposed to be the Summer of 2002!
It's pretty obvious from the beginning of "Levelland" that Texas writer/director Clark Lee Walker is sucking at the tit of Linklater. His dialogue is straight out of "Slacker" where disenfranchised teenagers talk disparagingly about their hometown and their lives. Trouble is, Walker doesn't have nearly the ear for teenage realism that Linklater has, nor does he have the ability to cast actors well, so his film sounds more like some stilted, sophomoric attempt at being Linklater than it does the genuine article.
And before I'm accused of "easy criticism," let me offer this truth: I saw "Levelland" before I knew who Walker was. And I conceived of these criticisms in my own mind, well before I knew that he even worked with Linklater. This was before I realized he was in "Slacker" and co-wrote "The Newton Boys" and worked on "SubUrbia" and "Before Sunrise."
There are other Linklateresque things about the film as well. After opening with dialogue that is obviously inspired by "Slacker" (and continuing it throughout the film), Walker turns the film into a remake of "Dazed and Confused." The focus here is a group of teenagers (albeit getting the whole summer rather than just the last day of school) discussing their lives and the meaninglessness of it all. There's even the resident "stoner" type goof who says things like "Dude" and "Party" and stuff. (In an even more horrifying moment, he's shown to be a "Mexican" who has a ratty house and a "crazy" mother. But that's okay because, as we've learned from "Raising Victor Vargas" and "Real Women Have Curves," all Mexicans have crazy mothers, right?)
""Levelland" starts off with problems. Not only is the acting and the dialogue stilted, but the film begins as if it is going to be some sort of skateboarding movie. And, lets face it, the skateboarding in the movie is downright dull and event-less. These kids couldn't skateboard their way out of a wet pool, let alone a dry one. But, this criticism begins to lack merit as the film evolves. After 30 minutes or so, it becomes obvious that Walker here is trying to present a story of disaffected youth during a Texas summer. His characters aren't supposed to be master skateboarders. They're supposed to be na > spends far too much time lovingly caressing their skating moves with his camera. It gets boring. And at 2 hours, "Levelland" needs all the help it can get to not be boring.
Another problem with the film is the use of music. For a while, I thought maybe Walker was presenting a story supposedly set in the early 80's because the film is peppered (assaulted, really) with late 70's punk music. Now, I love this music, but I find it hard to believe that kids today in East Texas are spending their summers jamming to "New Waves Greatest Hits" compilation CD's. I had to do some head scratching and try to remember things in the film that proved to me that this was supposed to be modern day. Eventually I remembered words like "DVD player" being used. And then a new Volkswagen Beetle appeared as a character's car in the film, so I knew this was supposed to be present day. Ipso facto, the music is really unrealistically used in this film. That isn't to say I didn't like it or that I thought it wasn't used effectively during music montages. A scene that uses Elvis Costello's "Peace, Love and Understanding," is indeed quite nice. It just doesn't seem realistic when the characters are sitting listening to their portable CD players and they've got some old 70's punk song.
This film goes on way too long and has a lot of problems but I couldn't help liking it for one reason and that reason is Marie Black. Recognizable to Austin film aficionados immediately as the female lead in Jeff Stohland's "What I Like About you," Black is perhaps the best actress working in Austin films today. Her character here is bold, well drawn, realistic and emotionally raw. Her interaction with young actor Matt Barr, who gradually gets better as the film gores on, are so open and real and blatantly emotional that the film almost becomes embarrassing. In fact, the audience of tittering idiots I saw the film with at SXSW in 2003 couldn't stop giggling at Black's character every time she appeared on screen because her motivations and her feelings were so real and obvious. This is not to say her performance is lacking, rather the audience that I saw the film with was lacking. What a bunch of sophomoric jerks.
Of course, Walker's script and his editing job didn't help Black much. When teenage Barr's mother leaves on a business trip and Black's car appears in his driveway immediately afterward, it rings horribly contrived. When she sneaks in his house, disrobes and seduces him, seemingly without knowing who's in the house, she appears to be an idiot. It is only Black's amazing performance that bolts through Walker's bullshit and poor work to suspend this film above the "Levelland" of mediocrity that it often sinks to. She even helps Barr to elevate his talents almost to her level. Their scenes together are fierce and unafraid and the duo deserves many accolades for the chances they were willing to take with the material.
"Levelland" is a pretty bad film and Walker shows that he has much work to do to be taken seriously as a filmmaker. Still, as the film went on, and the actors got better and the plot got more interesting, I became more involved. And as the focus turned onto Barr's Zach character and his relationship with the older Black, the film eventually started to win me over. Too bad the actors were in a film by a filmmaker who did seemingly everything in his power to negate their work.
Also with Jessica Schwartz and newcomers Simon Bingham, Logan Camp (or is it Logan Taylor?), Jason Juranek, and Erik McKay.
Richard Linklater is thanked in the film as is The Dobie Theater and its current manager Keith Garcia.
Viewed in March 2003 at the SXSW Film Festival.
Special Effects\Make Up: D-
Final Grade: C+
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